Sixteen-year-old Adam Petrazelli has schizophrenia. He is unusual in that his symptoms appeared when he was young, around the age of eight. Adam sees things that other people do not see, like beautiful, tall, blond Rebecca, or huge bats. Since Adam won't communicate verbally with his therapist, he writes journal entries. He's also on an experimental drug, ToZaPrex. Because of problems at his previous school his mother and stepfather have decided to move him to a private school, St. Agatha's.
On his first day he is assigned a school ambassador, Ian Stone, whom Adam recognizes as a "douche". True to form, as soon as Adam goes to pick up his PE uniform, Ian ditches him. At this point he meets a girl, whose name he soon learns is Maya, who helps him get to his next class. There Adam meets Dwight Olberman with who he has most of his classes.
Adam is able to get out of religion homework by rewriting "the mysteries of the rosary, the Prayer of St. Augustine, and the Hail, Holy Queen from memory." But this has consequences in that he is signed up for the Academic Team. One day after gym class, Adam hears splashing in the pool and when he goes to investigate, discovers Maya floundering and drowning. He saves her and they soon become friends and then a couple.
Adams entries tell about his abandonment by his father, his mother remarrying a lawyer named Paul, his love of cooking, and is growing relationship with Maya. But soon, the new drug Adam is taking presents health risks, resulting in researchers slowly lowering the dosage and withdrawing him from the study. Adam hasn't told his friend Dwight nor his girlfriend Maya. It isn't until a disastrous situation at prom, that the truth comes out and Adam must confront the reality of life with his secret revealed.
Readers looking for a novel that tackles the topic of schizophrenia in an honest, accurate way without getting bogged down in tropes,won't find it in Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton. Although Walton's character, Adam, a young teen diagnosed with schizophrenia is witty and intelligent, the portrayal of this mental illness is decidedly one dimensional and the novel unrelenting in its misrepresentations about the Catholic faith.
Although Adam is in therapy he won't talk to his therapist. "I don't always say the things I mean to say when I talk to someone. It's impossible to swallow words after letting them out, so it's better for me not to speak at all if I can help it..." Instead he writes about their sessions afterwards in the form of journal entries. These entries, dated from August 15, 2012 to June 26, 2013, form the story of Adam's life as he struggles with his mental illness.
Adam claims that he is an expert on his condition. At the beginning of the novel he tells readers, "There really is no clear path for the disease to travel. Some people have visions. Some people hear voices. And some people just get paranoid." To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, specific diagnostic criteria must be fulfilled. According to the current DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5) Manual, two or more of the following symptoms must be present for a significant period of time to merit a diagnosis of schizophrenia: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behaviour, and negative symptoms (flat effect, avolition, and anhedonia). Yet Adam has only hallucinations (seeing/hearing things that are not really there) and technically doesn't meet the criteria for someone with schizophrenia.
Walton's portrayal of stigma surrounding mental illness is well done. Adam admits that his greatest fear is that "someday I won't be able to watch the parade of hallucinations without doing what they tell me to do because I'm afraid the drug will stop working. And everyone might have a good reason to be afraid of me." This is a fear that anyone with any medical condition requiring medication often has but must be particularly acute for those with a mental health condition.
Adam's worry about losing control is brought to the forefront after the Sandy Hook shooting and a classmate's suggesting that the shooter should have just killed himself. Adam doesn't say anything in response because he fears it will show sympathy for the shooter. "...I was angry because whoever had said it has no idea what it's like to lose control. They don't know what it's like to be haunted by your own mind. They don't understand the mad desire to make the voices stop even if it means doing what they tell you to..."
While this is supposed to be a novel about a rare situation of a teenage boy with schizophrenia and all that entails, the author has gone out of her way to mock Catholics and the Catholic faith. In fact readers may question the author's true motive here - is it to bring about understanding of mental health issues or to bash Catholics. It seems the setting of the story in St. Agatha's, a private Catholic school was chosen so that every possible trope about Catholics, Catholic schools, the sacraments, nuns and the faith could be employed. By his own admission Adam has received all the sacraments, but doesn't regularly attend Mass and doesn't believe in God and isn't a practicing Catholic. So it is puzzling that his mother would send him to a Catholic private school when she herself places little value on her faith and her son isn't practicing.
Adam's cynical, derisive voice is especially strident when describing anything Catholic. Holy Communion is "You know, where they hand out pieces of Jesus made of stale wafers." Adam states he doesn't " like the idea of some old guy shoving food in my mouth." or sharing a wineglass with someone with a cold sore (very few churches offer Holy Communion under both species.) Sister Catherine who teaches Adam religious theory is often described in derogatory terms, "...Sister Catherine's mouth was twisted in a maniacal grin..." Some of his worst remarks are saved for the Knights of Columbus who are "...old men with papery skin and knobby knees" with a "creep factor". Adam's mother doesn't like them because "...it's they way they protect family values, but only families that like like theirs. I think it's also the way they like to quote Leviticus." - a reference to the Catholic church's teaching against same sex marriage. No one is forcing Adam's mother to stay in the Catholic church - if she doesn't believe in its teachings she is free to leave.
The author brings in the Sandy Hook shootings in which twenty children and six adults were shot to death by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Lanza had the same first name as the novel's main character but was not schizophrenic - a fact never clarified in the novel. He had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, depression, anxiety and OCD. Walton uses the shootings to bring up the discussion around mental illness and mass murder.
But here again Walton has Adam inexplicably attack the Catholic faith. The school board head, Ian Stone's father has a meeting with Adam's parents which upsets Adam greatly. Apparently the school board has objected to the secrecy surrounding Adam, a student they did not have to admit. Adam views this with his typical derogatory cynicism, "I knew they'd want to have a board meeting, perhaps a public inquisition to keep things Catholic." So the entire situation seems unreasonable and ridiculous. Adam who in the first one hundred plus pages has ridiculed almost every aspect of Catholicism complains "This conflicts with the church's actual teachings though, which is highly inconvenient for them. The Bible teaches tolerance. I doubt that that Jesus would have encouraged people to 'out' me as a schizo."
Walton's attack on Catholicism reaches a new low when Adam and Maya have sex in a school closet, after having just rehearsed the "Stations of the Cross" (really a passion play) Adam still in his costume as Jesus Christ and Maya who portrays Mary Magdalene.
Walton had the chance to demonstrate how faith can help people to cope with mental illness. A study done by University of Missouri researchers found that "better mental health is associated with increased spirituality." Adam as a Catholic could have received significant emotional support by having a good spiritual director in the form of a regular confessor. Instead Adam and his family see their church as unsupportive and intolerant.
Words On Bathroom Walls could have been a great book that explored the issues surrounding mental illness, especially schizophrenia which many people misunderstand and are therefore fearful. While there are some excellent passages, such as Adam's thoughts on what it feels like to lose control, most of this novel is unrelentingly anti-Catholic and deeply offensive. I can't imagine the same novel being written set in a Muslim school as it likely would have been refused publication.
The premise of Words On Bathroom Walls is to ask for tolerance, understanding and acceptance for people with mental health issues especially those who have a serious illness like schizophrenia. Ironically this novel does not encourage that same tolerance, understanding and acceptance to those who are Catholic.
For those who are experiencing mental health issues please know that your Catholic church loves and cares for you. Most Catholic high schools recognize the struggles of young people today and have social workers and youth workers as well as other resources available. Many Catholic school boards have specific policies on mental health and work to foster a climate of respect, love, compassion and concern for those dealing with mental illness. Bullying of those with mental health issues is not tolerated.
National Catholic Partnership on Disability
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on the Newtown tragedy.
There are several renewed teaching orders of sisters in the United States and Canada including but not limited to the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady Mother of the Eucharist and the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate. As evidenced by their websites, these orders a young, vibrant and faithful to Catholic teaching.
Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton
New York: RandomHouse Children's Books 2017